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Reviewed by:
  • Washington Burning: How a Frenchman's Vision for Our Nation's Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army, and: Washington: The Making of the American Capital, and: Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, and: Paris on the Potomac: The French Influence on the Architecture and Art of Washington, D. C.
  • Marion C. Nelson (bio)
Washington Burning: How a Frenchman's Vision for Our Nation's Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army. By Les Standiford. (New York: Crown, 2008. Pp. xi, 353. Cloth, $24.95, Paper, $15.95.)
Washington: The Making of the American Capital. By Fergus M. Bordewich. (New York: Amistad, 2008. Pp. xiv, 367. Cloth, $27.95; Paper, $15.99.)
Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation. By Cokie Roberts. (New York: William Morrow, 2008. Pp. xxiii, 481. Cloth, $26.95; Paper, $15.99.)
Paris on the Potomac: The French Influence on the Architecture and Art of Washington, D. C. Edited by Cynthia R. Field, Isabelle Gournay, and Thomas P. Somma. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007. Pp. ix, 164. Cloth, $49.95; Paper, $24.95.)

Three of these books were written, and the fourth has considerable appeal, for the general reader. This review, prepared by an academic historian [End Page 577] for a mostly professional readership, uses the survey of these particular volumes to consider how popular writers of the history of the early republic negotiate our mutual territory.

Les Standiford came to his project, Washington Burning, in the shock of the September 11 attacks. However sincere this inspiration, it led to a pretty cheap sales pitch in the hands of the publicists: "September 11, 2001, was not the first time our nation's capital was attacked by outsiders. The first attack was in August 1814" (Crown Publishing Group press release, n.d.). Standiford contributed to the effect by sprinkling his early pages with references to the "terrorists" of 1814, and by stooping to this sort of evocation: "The remnants of the citizenry cowered as the boot heels of foreign invaders cracked on the District pavement" (10). "Washington burning" gives the book its oomph, but it mostly follows the career of Peter Charles L'Enfant, the brilliant but prickly creator of the grand plan for the capital. The first part introduces the debate over the location of the permanent seat of government and follows L'Enfant to spring 1792, when he battled the commissioners in charge and ended his official connection with the City of Washington. Part Two begins in Washington in June 1800, but then, as Standiford's John Adams gazes out from the half-built presidential residence and wonders "just what had been going on here since 1792" (160), the reader is back in that dismal first decade. Part Three begins again on August 24, 1814, then briefly shares visiting diplomats' deploring descriptions of the brand-new capital and touches on Benjamin Henry Latrobe's and William Thornton's rival designs for the Capitol before finishing with the War of 1812 and, once more, the burning of Washington. Standiford rewards the inquiring general reader with "Notes" that offer anecdotes from the author's research encounters, descriptions of additional sources the reader might pursue, and tales of colorful peripheral characters. But, alas, the basic rationale for citations is lost sight of. Citations to Jefferson in two successive chapters, for example, simply send the reader to "Julian Boyd's monumental and ongoing The Papers of Thomas Jefferson," to "the Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress," and to his collected papers in editions of 1853–54 and 1904–05 (328). This book is all about stories, "quite a heap of yarn," as Standiford nicely put it (ix). And fair enough for a night-table, read-a-few-pages-before-your-eyelids-droop book, but these stories have been told before, and better. Surely Bob Arnebeck remains the best possible bard for the whole shabby saga of Washington City's first decade (Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, [End Page 578] 1790–1800 [Lanham, MD, 1991]). Anthony S. Pitch's The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 (Annapolis, MD, 1998) treats that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 577-583
Launched on MUSE
2009-08-27
Open Access
No
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